Opinion

The Case for a Progressive Vision on Tech Policy

By Adam Conner
August 15, 2019 at 5:00 am ET

Twelve years ago, I logged onto a laptop in my apartment and opened the first Facebook office in Washington, D.C. I was an evangelist helping lawmakers, regulators and politicos understand and use a new technology dubbed “social media.”

Many of these operatives were skeptical of a 23-year-old telling them that an online network was going to change everything. Some saw the potential to communicate with constituents, deliver services and win elections. Few were interested in the bigger questions that the growth of technology companies might create, and we were happy to let those questions go unanswered.

When working at a startup, optimism carries you through the hardest days and past the doubts of others. But that same optimism can be used to deflect criticism or wave away future problems. Many of us who worked in tech early on went from upstarts and dreamers to watching our companies exercise vast influence on our economy and democracy in such a short timespan that we barely comprehended what was happening. This was just as true of the federal government.

As someone who pioneered politics on social media, after 2016 it was impossible to not re-examine the role technology had played in bringing us to this moment. For people like Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and myself, this has now compelled us to turn our careers toward addressing the unchecked influence and power of the companies we helped get off the ground with an idealistic spirit, and which we still think can help enrich our lives and expand our economy if they are not out of control.

But like us, the federal government needs to snap out of it. The time for catching up is long past, and government is falling behind exponentially further with every passing day. So let’s start with a few key areas where we can address head-on the mounting risks and inequalities technology has created.

First, competition is essential for technological advancement and a well-functioning and just economy, but it’s clearly missing in large parts of the technology industry. That sector is more than just five companies, and we cannot let the biggest internet companies alone define what technology regulations are appropriate. Such concentrated power is not in the best long-term interests of consumers or our economy. We need a healthy and vibrant technology sector: room for new startups, the space for sustainable young companies to flourish and the ability for companies to go public in new fields.

Antitrust has long been an important government tool, but business groups have largely succeeded in stopping its use over the last forty years. All antitrust options must be on the table, from preventing social networks from acquiring other social networks (as Ben Thompson of Stratechery suggests) to splitting up big technology companies.

Yet antitrust is just one tool for ensuring the role of technology in society and our economy stays balanced. As Public Knowledge’s Harold Feld lays out in his new book, “The Case for the Digital Platform Act,” emerging technologies of the last two centuries – such as railroads, prescription drugs and radio waves – became economically impactful and specialized enough that they required their own regulator. This resulted in the Federal Railroad Administration, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Communications Commission.

Some have called for a U.S. federal data privacy agency, similar to those in other countries and backed by a federal privacy law, while Feld has specifically proposed an agency focused on digital platforms. Both are worthy of consideration and either would require Congress to finally pass a strong new federal privacy law. But just as passing a new law to approve every medical device would be impossible, expecting Congress to apply its glacial pace to the constant innovation of the technology sector is unrealistic.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the challenges from an unregulated technology sector: algorithmic discrimination and bias; the lack of diversity in technology companies; and ever-growing inequality resulting from the gig economy to automation’s displacement of jobs. And with a constant stream of mass shootings and other violence fueled by online hate and white nationalist invective, our society must take steps to stop hate online and off.

All of this requires the government to have the tools and knowledge to legislate and regulate a huge sector of our economy. We need more digital experts serving in the public interest. This could mean deploying teams of technology experts to agencies to support their regulatory efforts, similar to the model pioneered by the United States Digital Service for digital delivery of government services. Congress requires more assistance from experts who aren’t captured by industry, so efforts to recreate the Office of Technology Assessment, expand the Congressional Research Service, and create a Congressional Digital Service could all help.

As I look back, there were plenty of people who were raising concerns as technology companies grew and consolidated power. I wish we had listened to those concerns more seriously in our startup days. I cannot look back with pride at what I helped build without also accepting responsibility for the problems it created. I do not plan to return to industry, as my new mission is to use my experience to address the issues we created. I’m still optimistic about the possibilities for technology if a robust regulatory regime can ensure that these technologies do not break our economy, our society, and our democracy.

Adam Conner is the vice president for Technology Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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